Michael White’s classical news: Shostakovich; Alexandra Palace; Tallis Scholars

Thursday, 20th January — By Michael White

Dmitri Shostakovich credit Deutsche Fotothek adjusted

Dmitri Shostakovich. Photo: Deutsche Fotothek

A FAMOUS fact about Dmitri Shostakovich is that he spent a significant part of his life with a bag packed by his bed, in case the KGB came to arrest him in the night. Like many prominent artistic figures under Stalin’s terror, he lived almost constantly in fear. You see it on his face in photographs. You hear it in his music, which is often dark, neurotic, anxious. And although it won’t make for the cheeriest of weekends, there’s a chance to seriously immerse yourself in Shostakovich’s bleak world of high anxiety this coming weekend when the Carducci Quartet play all 15 of his string quartets in a back-to-back sequence of concerts at Wigmore Hall.

A marathon event, it plays 1pm and 7.30pm on Jan 22, continuing 11.30am, 3pm, and 7.30pm on Jan 23 – by which time both performers and audience will be on their knees with emotional exhaustion, but hopefully in a good way.

Written over more than three decades, from the 1930s to the 1970s, these quartets span a difficult life through times of war, persecution and other torments: and they respond to their circumstances in the way that many Soviet artists did – with subterfuge, irony, parody, and a kind of grim clowning that delivered coded messages to those with ears attuned. But it remains a matter of debate exactly what these messages amount to, hidden in their musical equivalent of a hall of mirrors.

One certainty is that Shostakovich’s own name gets transcribed into the music, suggesting autobiographical significance. And another is that however dark these quartets might be, they are great works whose cumulative effect is cathartic. So think of the Carducci’s weekend as a rigorous, no-pain-no-gain stay at a health farm. You’ll emerge the better for the battering. Details wigmore-hall.org.uk – and note, there are free/discounted tickets for under-35s through the generous Cavatina concert scheme.

If you haven’t yet been to the reopened theatre at Alexandra Palace, which lingered in disuse and decay until restoration in 2018, there’s a good excuse on Jan 23 when Crouch End Festival Chorus join forces with the London Mozart Players for an afternoon concert there. Featuring not so well-known choral works by sibling composers Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, it’s an opportunity to assess the virtues of these two figures (one already famous, the other still getting there) side by side. Starts 3pm. Details: alexandrapalace.com

• A still more venerable building than the AllyPally is the Sistene Chapel in the Vatican. And though it’s a bit of a trek to get to for a concert, you can be there in spirit on Jan 26 when the celebrated Tallis Scholars present a Cadogan Hall concert of music by Renaissance composers like Palestrina, Josquin and Allegri who were associated with the Chapel and wrote for its resident choir. Included in the programme is Allegri’s deathless Miserere with its soaring top-line riffs (though they’re partly a later embellishment, not in Allegri’s original manuscript). Details: cadoganhall.com

Finally, on the subject of buildings with musical associations, the church of St Martin in the Fields acquired world fame in the 1960s/70s thanks to the chamber orchestra that called itself the Academy of St Martins – even though the links between the two were actually quite limited and the Academy only rarely performed there. But the church is in the process of upping its musical game. And as a consequence, the Academy returns to its nominal “home” on Jan 25, to play a programme of Mozart and Haydn. Should be an event. Booking: stmartin-in-the-fields.org

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